Political Developments - December 2018

1. Saudi Arabia: The Khashoggi murder

The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on 2 October by Saudi officials sent to Turkey for this purpose continued to reverberate through the last month, with Turkey adopting a tough position and Saudi Arabia attempting to distance the crown prince from the deed. US opinion was divided between the White House backing Prince Mohammed bin Salman and upholding the importance US-Saudi ties, while sections of the Congress, US commentators and the media castigated the prince and called for his indictment for the murder. On 6 December, Human Rights Watch called on Turkey to formally submit a request to the UN secretary-general to establish an international, independent investigation into Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

CIA director Gina Haspel made a presentation on the murder before Congress, after which Senator Bob Corker told reporters that a jury would find the prince guilty “in thirty minutes.” Senator Lindsey Graham said he had "high confidence" Mohammed bin Salman was complicit in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. The senator described the Saudi royal as "a wrecking ball", "crazy" and "dangerous". Some commentators saw in the murder an opportunity to pressurise Saudi Arabia to end the war in Yemen, with some calls to try the crown prince as a “war criminal”.

The President continued to assert that “we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi.” Justifying the importance of US-Saudi relations, secretary of state Mike Pompeo said: “The kingdom is a powerful force for stability in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is working to secure Iraq’s fragile democracy and keep Baghdad tethered to the West’s interests, not Tehran’s. Riyadh is helping manage the flood of refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war by working with host countries, cooperating closely with Egypt, and establishing stronger ties with Israel. Saudi Arabia has also contributed millions of dollars to the U.S.-led effort to fight Islamic State and other terrorist organizations. Saudi oil production and economic stability are keys to regional prosperity and global energy security.” The US President put it more succinctly: “Very simply,” he said, “it is called America First!”

The leaking of its findings by the CIA, which challenge the positions of the US President and the Saudi crown prince, has evoked considerable comment. Rami Khouri has noted: “Never in modern history has the effective ruler of the Arab region’s biggest power and the president of the world’s most powerful country both been publicly challenged by the CIA, which essentially calls them both liars, and the crown prince a murderer.”

Khouri points out that the CIA report has put in place several contentions in the US which will reverberate in the months to come: between the President and his principal external intelligence agency; between the President and Congress and the Republican Party, and between the President and the US’ western allies.

Crown prince at the G-20 summit

Prince Mohammed bin Salman signalled to the international community his ability to handle the fallout of the murder effectively by attending the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires. He had very public interactions with the leaders of Russia, China and India. Western leaders however appeared to avoid him during the family photo; according to an observer, “the prince stood rather isolated at the end of the line, at times looking uncertain and nervous”. French President Emmanuel Macron told the prince that Europe would insist on international experts being part of the investigation into the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

At home, Saudi Arabia’s media gave extensive coverage to Mohammed bin Salman’s meetings with world leaders, tweeting pictures of his encounters, which also included the presidents of South Korea, Mexico, and South Africa.

Saudi lobbying in the US

Emma Ashford wrote an article in The New Republic in which she provided details of Saudi Arabia’s lobbying efforts in the US which also embrace the White House and Trump and his family personally. She quoted a report that noted that “Saudi lobbying in Washington has grown exponentially in recent years, costing $27.3 million in 2017 alone. In addition to the money that goes to traditional lobbyists, Saudi funding goes to think tanks, universities, and other institutions which can influence U.S. foreign policy.” She pointed out that arms sales had bought considerable clout for Gulf monarchies: these sales, she notes, are hugely beneficial to the Saudi government, allowing them access advanced weapons and to replenish armament stocks.

The article also suggested that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is very close to the Saudi crown prince, “even pushed to inflate the reported value of arms sales to the Kingdom in order to further bolster the partnership.” She concluded: “Perhaps the most striking indication of the administration’s excessive willingness to bend to Saudi interests is in its refusal to criticize the murder of Khashoggi. … In the Trump era, the administration has displayed scepticism towards its own intelligence agencies, while maintaining its support for Saudi leaders.”

2. Syria: The Astana conference

The heads of state of the three nations pursuing the Astana peace process – Russia, Turkey and Iran – had their 11th summit at Astana on 28-29 November. The meeting lasted just one day, the joint statement being issued on 29th morning itself.

The statement reiterated the leaders’ unswerving commitment to Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The three countries also opposed “all attempts to create new realities on the ground”, thus rejecting US plans to set up a long-term presence in northeast Syria.

Before the conference, Putin had indicated the need to promote the constitutional process by finalising the 150-member constitutional committee agreed to at the Sochi conference in January this year. Though 142 names have been finalised, the remaining names have not been approved due to Syrian government opposition. This led the outgoing UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura to describe the meeting as a “missed opportunity”.

Idlib was the main topic of discussion at Astana. Nearly two months after the deadline accepted by Turkey to evict the extremists from Idlib and finalise the 15-20 km wide de-militarised zone, there has been hardly any change in the ground situation: Jabhat Nusra, going under the name “Hayat Tahreer al Shaam”, remains firmly positioned at Idlib.

The security scenario has also visibly deteriorated – there was a chemical attack in Aleppo on 24 November, allegedly by rebel forces, in which over a hundred persons were injured, leading Russia to launch a sharp air attack on rebel targets in Hama and Idlib provinces.

Much of the blame for this situation is being directed by regional observers at Turkey. Turkey views with deep concern the steady consolidation of Kurdish territorial claims in northeast Syria through the US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). To counter this, it is seeking to bring territories in northern Syria – north Aleppo, Idlib and lands up to the Euphrates – under its control, with its interests being projected by the National Liberation Front (NLF), made up largely of elements of the Free Syrian Army and Turkomen fighters affiliated with it.

Given Turkey’s desire to remain in northern Syria to confront the Kurds militarily, it has little interest at present in neutralising Jabhat Nusra, since this group could prove a useful ally against the SDF at the appropriate time. This opportunism has no takers among Turkey’s partners in the Astana process: while they may dislike the US presence in Syria, they prioritise the destruction of Jabhat Nusra; hence their frustration with Turkey.

Idlib, the last bastion in rebel hands, is at the heart of ongoing competitions in Syria between domestic forces and their external sponsors. For, with the end of the standoff at this city, the next phase of the brutal struggle to obtain spoils from the eight-year conflict will commence.

The Syrian president is keen to initiate military action to bring Idlib under his control. Russia is certainly frustrated with Turkish pussy-footing with Jabhat Nusra but is reluctant to wage war: the large civilian casualties will almost certainly bring in western intervention, including bombings of Syrian forces, possibly even putting Russia in direct military confrontation with the US.

For the same reason, while Iran too would like to end Jabhat Nusra as a military threat, it is not keen to provoke the volatile US president and for now prefers a lowkey role, particularly since Trump’s officials continue to speak of Iran’s expulsion from Syria. These considerations suggest that the stalemate at Idlib will continue for now, at least until Turkey decides to intervene militarily against the extremist group. This will set the stage for the next round of confrontations in Syria, which will be as bloody and destructive as the first round of eight years.

3. Palestine:On November 1, Hamas announced that it had accepted security understandings with Israel in Gaza. Thus, while demonstrations will continue, these will be non-violent, will keep away from the border fence, and there will be no attacks on Israeli security personnel. In return, Israel will ease living conditions in Gaza by allowing the entry of fuel into the strip and the monthly transfer of $15 million of Qatari funding to pay the salaries of government employees. This agreement will last for six months.

Hamas has been anxious to maintain the momentum of the weekly “Great March of Return” demonstrations in Gaza, which have highlighted the Palestinian cause through the international media, revealing unarmed Palestinian youngsters bravely fighting for their homeland against a powerful, bloodthirsty and cruel enemy. But Hamas has also been concerned about the high casualties — since the protests began at the end of March this year, more than 200 Palestinians have been killed and 10,000-plus have been injured. The agreement allows it to continue the protests but without harm to the demonstrators.
The agreement between Hamas and Israel is important for the latter as well. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in candid remarks to the media on October 29, said that Israel “has no interest in toppling the Hamas regime” in Gaza. He said the collapse of the Hamas administration “would blow up in our faces.” He pointed out that military action in Gaza would give no advantage to Israel. This is because “we would still have no-one to give it to,” he said. He was making it clear that he had no interest in assuming responsibility for the administration of two million disgruntled Palestinians in Gaza, who are living in squalid conditions in the world’s largest prison.

According to observers, once the “tahdi’a” (lull or calming down) holds in Gaza, Egypt is likely to promote further indirect engagement between Hamas and Israel to address other issues, such as the return of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers and the release of two civilians in custody in Gaza.

4. Iraq: Iraq’s new Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi took the oath of office end-October along with 14 ministers of a Cabinet that needs 22 members. This marked the culmination of a month-long process of political uncertainty, turbulence and deal-making since he was named prime minister by newly appointed President Barham Salih.

Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose Sairoon alliance romped home with the highest number of seats in Parliament, had wanted to see a government of technocrats, not politicians, in Baghdad. As the complex process of coalition development came to an end in late September, with Al-Sadr aligning with the No. 2 grouping, the Fatah alliance headed by Hadi Al-Amiri of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units militia, he identified Abdul Mahdi, former finance minister and vice president, as the appropriate leader of the next government.

However, Al-Sadr and Al-Amiri do not share the same views on government formation. Al-Sadr rejects the old “quota” system of allotting ministerial portfolios to political groups — a veritable division of national spoils — while Al-Amiri wishes to see rewards for groups like his own that have made great efforts to combat Daesh. His focus is on the interior and defence portfolios.

This divide prevented Abdul Mahdi from obtaining parliamentary approval for eight ministers, including the interior, defence and justice ministers. The two competing alliances, though ostensibly on the same side, vetoed each other’s nominees in a destructive zero-sum endeavour. However, the prime minister was able to get ministers for foreign affairs, oil and finance, and is retaining with himself the interior and defence portfolios. There are threats of impeachment against some ministers for past misdemeanours.

Fifteen years since the end of the Saddam Hussein regime, the country is experiencing nationwide civil conflict, deepening ethnic and sectarian divides, and widespread destruction of infrastructure and governmental institutions. People are witnessing the near-total collapse of civic services, including the supply of drinking water and electricity, continued violence from extremist elements, and pervasive corruption on the part of politicians they elected to provide governance.

This popular rage was exhibited through agitations in southern Iraq in September, which finally persuaded the normally apolitical Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani to break his silence and demand that the next government meet the people’s requirements.

But not much has changed on the ground. Reports from Basra, which provides the bulk of Iraq’s oil revenues, suggest that popular anger remains unassuaged, but the people now see no advantage in street protests. The national security situation also remains parlous, with daily reports of bombings by Daesh elements even a year after they had been comprehensively defeated.

This violence reflects the feeble character of the official security forces, since effective power remains with the numerous militia that have not been disbanded or disarmed. They remain a lethal and fractious presence and are often accused of targeting their opponents on a sectarian basis. There are widespread concerns that Iraq could see the revival of earlier conflicts with extremist elements.

The divided national edifice is also constantly buffeted by the rival claims on the government in Iraq from Iran and the US. Though Iran was able to obtain the government of its choice in Baghdad, the US has made life difficult for Iraq by insisting on enforcing sanctions on Tehran: A blow to Iraq’s crucial energy and trade ties with its neighbour. While Iraq’s leaders have publicly accepted US demands, most observers believe this is just lip service since the ties between Iraq and Iran are too deep and mutually important to be abandoned at the behest of Washington.

Amid the grim scenario that is Iraq’s reality, all eyes are once again turning to Al-Sistani. His all-too-infrequent interventions in the political space have had extraordinary implications for a nation that is groaning under the twin scourges of conflict and corruption. The Iraqi people appear to be waiting for him to swing his magic wand.

5. Libya: Italy provided the latest platform to address the divisions that have wracked Libya for nearly eight years. Groups bitterly feuding at home came together in Palermo on Nov. 12-13, accompanied by their regional sponsors and representatives of Western countries with an interest in Libya’s security and energy resources.

There have been several efforts to bring peace to this beleaguered country. In 2015 in Skhirat, Morocco, the Libyan Political Accord had set up the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj, but this received no backing from the House of Representatives (HOR) government in Tobruk, which sees the GNA as extremist and supported by Qatar and Turkey. The HOR is ostensibly backed by military strongman Gen. Khalifa Haftar and gets political and military support from Egypt and the UAE.

Both Tripoli and Tobruk are backed by numerous armed militia that frequently engage in internecine fighting in which hundreds of people have been killed.

France and Italy are the principal European states with a stake in Libya. While their companies vie for Libya’s energy resources, Italy is immediately concerned about the flow of hundreds of poverty-stricken African migrants who sail for Italian shores from the Libyan coast.

After the Skhirat accord, the UN special envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salame, prepared an action plan in September 2017 that called for a national reconciliation conference, the framing of a new constitution, its approval through a national referendum, and fresh elections for a new national government.

Salame has now come up with an updated plan under which the reconciliation conference will take place early next year. Here, the blueprint for the reorganization and revitalization of Libya’s political, military, economic, financial and energy institutions will be finalized, setting the stage for elections in the spring of 2019.

In the run-up to the Palermo conference, a new player made its presence felt quite forcefully: Russia. On the eve of the conference, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov met the leaders of all the major Libyan factions in Moscow. The surprise visitor to Moscow was Haftar, who met with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and the head of the general staff of the Russian Army, Valery Gerasimov.

The alleged head of the Wagner private military contractor group, Evgeniy Progozhin, was seen at the meetings, which encouraged talk about the possible deployment of Russian mercenaries in Libya.

The other player active diplomatically before Palermo was Turkey. On Nov. 5-6, Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and the Chief of General Staff Yasar Guler met top political leaders in the Tripoli government,

who sought assurances of a Turkish role in reorganizing and upgrading a unified national army, competing with a similar Egyptian initiative for Haftar and the Tobruk government.

This was followed by a visit by the Tripoli-based foreign minister, the central bank governor and the deputy health minister to Istanbul, where they were hosted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They sought an increased Turkish role in their country’s reconstruction and easier access to Turkey for Libyan nationals.

The Palermo conference attracted 36 delegations; Russia’s was led by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. He was president when Moscow backed the UN Security Council resolution that was later (mis)used by Western powers to bomb Tripoli and effect regime change, the origin of Libya’s current discord and malaise.

The conference got off to a bad start for Turkey. On Haftar’s insistence, its delegation was not invited to an informal closed-door meeting of principal delegation heads. Hence, the delegation, headed by Vice President Fuat Oktay, left Palermo. This suggested an Egyptian hand since President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi had been instrumental in getting a seemingly reluctant Haftar to attend the meeting, the latter’s presence being crucial to the conference’s success.

The conference, as expected, did not yield any dramatic results, but affirmed support for the Salame action plan and the reconciliation process.

Medvedev said Russia had a long-term interest in Libya that would include “the restoration of the economy” and of “the social sphere” in order to resume normal life. But observers’ focus remains Russia’s military role, including the possible deployment of mercenaries, the building up of a national army via weapons’ supplies and training, and even the setting up of bases in Libya, though this is hotly denied by Russian officials.

Despite the fiasco in Palermo, Turkey is likely to remain committed to the Tripoli-based Islamist group and challenge Haftar and the regional powers that back him. A game-changer would be greater Turkish-Russian cooperation to reconcile the warring factions, as in the case of Syria.

Strong ties between Ankara and Moscow, and their constructive role in the Astana process regarding Syria, suggest that this is doable. Until then, there will be no peace on the Libyan horizon.

6. The GCC: On December 3, Qatar’s energy minister, Saad al-Kaabi, said his country was quitting OPEC to focus on gas production. The decision takes effect on January 1. A tiny country of just 2.7m, Qatar is the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas. It is a minor producer of oil, pumping about 600,000 barrels per day. Of the 15 OPEC members, it ranks 11th and generates less than 2% of OPEC’s output.

Commentators see its departure as a political move aimed at Saudi Arabia, the most influential member of both OPEC and the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC). The GCC was West Asia’s most effective multilateral body. But last year three members—Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—imposed a trade-and-travel embargo on Qatar. The dispute paralysed the GCC and left its two other members, Oman and Kuwait, increasingly uncomfortable.

Kuwait has signed a military co-operation agreement with Turkey. Turkey has become an important player in the Gulf, a competitor to the Saudi-led camp. It has troops deployed in Qatar to guard against a possible invasion. Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia have deteriorated since October, when Saudi hitmen killed Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist, inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.

In September more than 5,000 British troops landed in Oman for a big military exercise. It is also making new allies. Although none of the Gulf states has diplomatic relations with Israel, several are racing to establish ties. Oman has moved fastest. It welcomed Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to Muscat in October. His trip allowed Sultan Qaboos to cast ties with Iran in a positive light, suggesting that Oman could be an intermediary between Iran and Israel.

7. Iran: A car bombing struck the Iranian port city of Chabahar on Thursday, 6 December, in the morning, killing two and injuring at least 40 others outside the city’s police headquarters. Ansar Al-Furqan, a Salafist Baluch insurgent group has claimed responsibility.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused "foreign-backed terrorists" for the attacks, while the Revolutionary Guard hinted at a Saudi role. Zarif added: "In 2010, our security services intercepted & captures extremists en route from UAE. Mark my words: Iran WILL bring terrorists & their masters to justice." He was referring to the capture, trial and subsequent execution in June 2010 of Abdolmalek Rigi, the leader of the Sunni militant group Jundallah who had waged a deadly insurgency in Sistan-Baluchistan.

For his part, IRGC Spokesman Brigadier General Ramadan Sharif said the attack was executed by a terrorist groups linked to intelligence agencies in foreign countries, including Saudi Arabia. 

Chabahar lies in Sistan-Baluchistan province some 100 kilometres west of the Pakistan border. The province has a large, mainly Sunni Muslim ethnic Baluchi community which straddles the border and has long been a flashpoint, with Pakistan-based Baluchi separatists and jihadists carrying out cross-border attacks targeting the Shia authorities.

Chabahar has a deep-water port on the Gulf of Oman and with Indian assistance Iran has been developing it as a major energy and freight hub between Central Asia and India, bypassing Pakistan.

While rare, Iran has been targeted in recent years by militant attacks. In September, gunmen disguised as soldiers opened fire on a military parade in Ahvaz, killing at least 24 people and wounding over 60.
Arab separatists and the Islamic State group both claimed the assault. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blamed Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for the attack, allegations denied by both countries.


December 9, 2018

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About the Author

Ambassador Talmiz Ahmed

Former Ambassador of India to Saudia Arabia, Oman and UAE, monitors developments in the West Asian region.  

Ambassador Talmiz Ahmad joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1974. Early in his career, he was posted in a number of West Asian countries such as Kuwait, Iraq and Yemen and later, between 1987 and 1990, he was Consul General in Jeddah. He also held positions in the Indian missions in New York, London and Pretoria. He served as Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (2000-03; 2010-11); Oman (2003-04), and the UAE (2007-10). He was also Additional Secretary for International Cooperation in the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas in 2004-06. In July 2011, the Saudi Government conferred on him the King Abdul Aziz Medal First Class for his contribution to the promotion of Indo – Saudi relations. After retirement from the Foreign Service in 2011, he worked in the corporate sector in Dubai for three years. He is now a full-time academic and holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University. He has published three books: Reform in the Arab World: External Influences and Regional Debates (2005), Children of Abraham at War: the Clash of Messianic Militarisms (2010), and The Islamist Challenge in West Asia: Doctrinal and Political Competitions after the Arab Spring (2013). He writes and lectures frequently on Political Islam, the politics and economics of West Asia and the Indian Ocean and energy security issues.